Home for your Pet

When training failed my dog, I found a solution no one wants to talk about.

Last Christmas morning, I patted my bed, inviting my newly adopted beagle, Bonnie, to jump up and cuddle. My boyfriend, still under the covers, reached out to pet her soft little head, which was now wedged between us. I turned away to grab my phone, and it happened: a guttural bark, followed by a human scream. I whipped around to see my boyfriend’s hand covered in blood. Before I could figure out how to help him, he was out the door on his way to urgent care.

It was Bonnie’s second bite in the week since I’d adopted her.

Like many others last year, I was thrilled to adopt a dog. The so-called pandemic puppy boom made for what felt like stiff competition at the time—according to one Nielsen survey, pet adoptions between March and July 2020 rose more than 15 percent from the same stretch in 2019. After months of filling out applications, I was eventually contacted by an animal shelter in New Jersey: A 6-year-old beagle whose photo melted my heart was ready to meet me. Some friends and I drove down from New York City to pick her up, and when we got out of the car, Bonnie trotted up to me immediately. Timid but curious, she allowed me to scratch one of her velvety ears as she sniffed my jacket. When she leaned into my hands like the beagle I had growing up used to do, it seemed meant to be.

When I tilted my webcam toward Bonnie during Zoom calls, I made sure my swollen, scabbing hand wasn’t visible.

A few weeks later, I was sitting on the floor of my kitchen with Bonnie and a dog trainer. We were working on positive reinforcement training and desensitizing her to triggers like the vacuum, which she’d bitten the night before. (Vacuums, along with almost everything else in my apartment and outside of it, terrified Bonnie.) I was already familiar with these training methods from a MasterClass I’d seen, in which a celebrity dog trainer assures new pet owners he can help their dogs overcome things like accidents in the house, excessive barking, and digging in the yard. At the beginning of each video lesson, an intro sequence plays: “There are no untrainable dogs,” he asserts. “Only untrainable people.”

Bonnie had sunken her teeth into my hand during my first full day with her. I’d reached out while she was licking her leg, unaware I’d crossed a boundary. When I explained this to the trainer, she reasoned Bonnie needed time and space to adjust to her new home. Still, I couldn’t shake feeling guilty, as if I’d done something wrong.

When friends and colleagues asked me about my new dog, I only half-lied. I said she was doing great, and when I tilted my webcam toward her during Zoom calls, I made sure my swollen, scabbing hand wasn’t visible on the screen. After all, it was true that she happily lounged next to me all day while I typed words into my laptop, and that when I sat cross-legged on the floor, she’d come curl up in my lap, her tail thumping against my legs. As I posted videos of Bonnie gently snoring on Instagram, I didn’t mention she was wiped out from a day of gnawing on her own paws so much that they bled. I convinced myself she just needed more training—that I could help her if only I worked hard enough.

Madeline Bilis

The daily dog anxiety meds came next, though they did little to make my otherwise healthy pup less afraid. And despite practicing those desensitization tactics every day, Bonnie regressed, lunging at perceived threats on the street, like joggers, other dogs, and squealing kids. One night before bed, while she was squatting to pee beside a tree, she bolted at a man strolling by us on the sidewalk. Before I could react, she chomped into his calf, his pant leg in her teeth as he tried to pull away.

To my surprise, the man brushed off the incident. I did not. From that night on, each time I bent over to pet Bonnie or sat down for a belly rub, I monitored her every move. Any sudden shift and I’d pull away, flinching.

The trainer came back a few days later. Bonnie bit her, too. With each incident, there was no growling, no toothy snarling, no indicators that she would pounce. There are no untrainable dogs, I thought, only untrainable people. I became adept at fastening her muzzle on in a matter of seconds, which I now had to do anytime we stepped beyond my door. Each time we came back inside, I tried to feel relief when nothing bad happened. I never did.

Months of failing to exhale helped me decide I should find Bonnie a new place to live. Maybe city life didn’t agree with her, I reasoned, and a quiet existence in the suburbs was what she needed. It was tough to picture her soulful eyes staring into the face of a new owner, but I knew that for my safety—and the safety of my neighbors—I couldn’t continue to manage her behavior. I never was able to anticipate what would set her off, and there was no way to control her environment on the streets of New York.

But I soon learned the shelter where Bonnie came from wouldn’t help me. A volunteer explained that Bonnie was too dangerous to adopt out again, and their affiliated sanctuaries—including several beagle-specific rescues—declined to take her. Another dog rescue organization in New York City told me that her bite history—seven bites at the time, though that number would grow—was too extensive for her to even qualify for a special rehabilitation program. Both conversations ended on the same topic: “behavioral euthanasia.”

I was dumbfounded to discover you could call a vet’s office and ask them to do that. Suddenly, in my new quest to help Bonnie get better, I’d become the decider of her fate.

Almost nobody willingly adopts a biting dog, and concealing a history of aggressive behavior is likely how I ended up with mine. I put up a post on a private rehoming site for her anyway, making sure to disclose her history and special needs. I explained she preferred women over men, couldn’t be around children, and needed to be muzzled on walks and around visitors. Perhaps a single female hermit in a rural area would be open to managing her behavior for the next decade or so?

I held out hope for a while but never received any adoption inquiries. And as her bite count continued to grow, so did my desire to stop living with a dangerous animal. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest every time we got ready to go outside, fearing the worst for our walk. I only left my apartment without her once per week so I could buy groceries; this way, she wouldn’t get so nervous being alone that she’d lash out when I returned. I tiptoed around my two-room home each day, hoping I wouldn’t cross any invisible boundaries.

Even if I did somehow find someone to take Bonnie, I wondered whether it would just exacerbate her already crippling anxieties. As the weeks went by and no new options appeared, I realized I had a choice: I could send her off with a stranger one day—someone she would certainly injure, and who would perhaps end up euthanizing her anyway—or I could allow her to leave this terrifying world peacefully with someone she loves.

Behavioral euthanasia is not a decision made out of convenience. Typically, it enters the conversation once the safety situation with a dog, cat, or other animal deteriorates beyond an acceptable level of risk, said Christopher Pachel, a veterinary behaviorist with Instinct Dog Behavior & Training. There isn’t a universal approach to every situation. Often, if the police aren’t involved, it’s up to a pet’s owner to decide what level of risk they can live with.

It was an excruciatingly lonely decision to make.

“If you’re the one who finds yourself in this situation where you’re actively considering it, choosing to rehome is hard. Choosing to push forward with treatment when you know it’s unsafe is hard. Choosing to make significant accommodations to make it safe, even though it’s not easy, that’s hard. Choosing to euthanize is hard,” Pachel told me. “There’s no easy way out from that difficult situation. But what we’re ultimately having to do is say, ‘Which of these ‘hards’ makes the most sense for me?’ ”

I desperately wished someone could come and assess my personal level of risk—something only I could do. It was an excruciatingly lonely decision to make, but when I turned things over in my head, I came up with this: In a comfortable and loving home, Bonnie was always on the defense, even in the calmest of situations. When it came down to it, her quality of life was poor. I couldn’t envision her feeling safe in any situation, no matter how rural the home, no matter how many triggers were eliminated. To prevent her from harming herself or anyone else again, I chose behavioral euthanasia.

On the phone, I wept quietly as I made Bonnie’s appointment, taking shallow breaths as the receptionist instructed me to make sure she was wearing her muzzle when we arrived.

Bonnie’s last day came sooner than expected. On a quiet Sunday morning while I pet her on the floor, she inexplicably snapped at my face, though her mouth clamped down hard around my boyfriend’s forearm instead of my cheek. When he jumped up, she held on, piercing deep wounds in his arm and a hole in his sweatshirt. She scampered away from us afterward, head down, trembling. I was so stricken with fear that I didn’t realize I was also trembling, forgetting to breathe. It was then I knew for certain that I could not continue living with Bonnie any longer.

I tossed her one of her favorite bones to calm her down. I called to reschedule her appointment to that afternoon, ordered an Uber, and put her muzzle on for the last time. Then I hugged her for a while, still too shaken to cry.

In the Uber, Bonnie, who preferred to sit in my lap during car rides, looked out the window sweetly unaware.

When we arrived, Bonnie started trembling again. We were shown to a small waiting area, and a staffer at the animal care center approached us to tell me she understood how hard this was, and that she supported my decision. I would have expressed more gratitude if I’d been able to do more than mumble.

I’d been warned that I wouldn’t be allowed in the room with Bonnie during the procedure because of COVID protocols. But instead of saying goodbye in the car like they’d asked, I explained Bonnie was petrified of the vet, and insisted I walk her into the exam room so her last moments wouldn’t involve resisting a stranger.

In a few minutes, I was led down a hallway. I coaxed Bonnie to follow. A staffer showed me to the room Bonnie needed to enter. I gave Bonnie one last pat, then handed her kelly-green leash to a tall man in scrubs and a mask. As he shut the door behind me, I heard Bonnie whine, a protest to being separated from me. I’m shattered when I think back to that moment, but at the time, everything was blank.  

In the days after Bonnie was put down, I roamed my newly empty home like a zombie. I didn’t sleep much, and when I did, I was startled awake by nightmares of being bitten. Crushed with guilt, I wondered if there was more I could have done to help my sweet beagle. I didn’t tell most people what happened. What if they thought I was a monster for not trying hard enough?

Instead, I made a post on Instagram so I wouldn’t have to talk to the people who had been gushing over Bonnie. Rather than detail her situation, I explained she had an illness that went undiagnosed before I adopted her, and that I had to say goodbye. She was sick, just in a way that was impossible for most people to see. I used that to help myself cope.

Not long afterward—my browser tabs still comprising dog behavior Reddit threads and news stories about Major Biden’s biting incidents—I came across Losing Lulu. It’s a Facebook support group for pet owners who’ve had to make the difficult choice to opt for behavioral euthanasia. “If love was enough… you’d still be here,” reads the group’s cover photo in bubble letters.

I later learned that Losing Lulu was founded in January 2019 by dog trainers Trish McMillan and Sue Alexander. Since then, it’s amassed more than 10,000 members and sees around a dozen new posts per day. The page is filled with adorable pet photos and long stretches of text, posts describing beloved furry family members who severely injured others—animals that, for whatever reason, were never able to feel safe in their homes.

I hadn’t realized how many other people had to make the same decision I did—because nobody, myself included, felt comfortable talking about it.

Named for Lulu, a foster dog McMillan euthanized, the group was founded by Alexander and McMillan for people who experienced a profound loss that was, ultimately, of their choosing. When I found the group, I suddenly felt less alone.

“I think it is really hard to find a corner of the internet where people are not cruel, especially when you’re talking about high-stakes events like euthanizing an animal for behavior,” said McMillan, a certified dog behavior consultant with a master’s degree in animal behavior.

Still, members are often cruel to themselves. The self-chastisement people include in their posts stuns Alexander. There’s a cultural component, she said, that suggests an animal’s behavior is your fault. It’s one I am very familiar with.

“You get on TV and there is a dog trainer who can fix any problem in 23 minutes with commercial breaks,” McMillan said. “So we have this idea that everything can be fixed. And I thought that, too, when I started off in shelters and when I started off as a trainer.”

In my own post in the group, I described how much I loved Bonnie, and how I could never anticipate when she’d strike. Like others, I listed out the “what-ifs” that lingered: What if I had tried a different trainer? What if I’d moved to the country with her? Dozens of comments poured in expressing their support and their sympathy.

Failing to openly discuss behavioral euthanasia in the first place is one part of what makes it so hard to fathom. But putting it out in the open isn’t exactly straightforward, either.

“It’s a tricky thing to navigate. From my perspective within the veterinary industry, if we don’t talk about it at all, it remains in the shadows,” said Pachel, the vet behaviorist. “If we bring it up too soon or accidentally choose the wrong words for bringing it up, we completely alienate our clients and potentially lose the opportunity to provide any resources whatsoever.”

There are dog lovers who maintain you should never euthanize a healthy dog for any reason. I know, because before I adopted Bonnie, I was one of them.

“It almost makes me tear up a little bit, just thinking about the number of clients I’ve had in that situation who have just broken down in my office or on a Zoom call, even saying ‘I was the person who said I would never do this,’ ” Pachel said.

And there’s always going to be something else to try, Alexander and McMillan told me. There’ll be one more trainer, one more behaviorist, one more medication. Alexander often tells her clients, “You need to try everything that’s reasonable for you, not everything.”

I thought if I loved Bonnie enough, trained her enough, helped her feel safe enough, she would get better. But like Losing Lulu’s tagline reads, love alone isn’t enough to cure an aggressive animal living in fear.

“I think the Lulus are the most loved pets of all,” Alexander said. “Trying is hard, but I think to stop trying is much harder.”

Some time after I said goodbye to Bonnie, I took a trip to my parents’ house in Massachusetts. After months of pandemic separation, I was reunited with my family and our dog Lady, a goofy 10-year-old beagle. When I stepped through the front door, the click-click-click of her nails on the tile floor sent me into a panic. Unaware of my newfound fear, she lazily plopped down by my side, her face much grayer and body much rounder than Bonnie’s. I stooped over to pet her and, though I’d known Lady since she was a puppy, marveled at how gentle she was.

My heart rate slowed, and something clicked. Lady was a healthy dog. Clearly, Bonnie was not. I couldn’t possibly picture her acting so carefree. I miss Bonnie dearly—and desperately wish I could’ve watched her dart around my parents’ backyard—but there’s solace in knowing she isn’t afraid anymore.